Tips for Handling Invisible Disabilities in the Workplace

Bill in the construction crew has to take a break twice a day to take an insulin shot, which sometimes frustrates other workers, because they think he’s getting extra breaks in violation of union policies. Mary in accounting comes in an hour late and stays an hour late because her depression medication causes extreme morning grogginess.

These are fictional situations, but millions of Americans suffer from disabilities, including hidden disabilities, that can affect their workplace routines and necessitate accommodations by employers. Invisible disabilities can include epilepsy, bipolar disorder, arthritis, attention deficit disorder, lupus, and PTSD, to name just a few.

Discussing any disabilities in the workplace can be tricky, and educating co-workers, supervisors, and employers on this topic is challenging, but crucial. The tips below can help you handle your employees’ invisible disabilities with tact and compassion, and can help you understand when accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) may be necessary.

What Constitutes a Disability?

When you think of a disability, you may picture someone in a wheelchair or a blind person with a white cane. But when it comes to dealing with a disability in the workplace, the definition that applies is a legal one, not a medical one. Under the ADA, someone has a disability if they:

  1. Have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities; and
  2. Have a record of such impairment or are regarded as having such impairment.

A covered disability can include a broad range of conditions, from cardiovascular and neurological impairments to major depression and certain learning disabilities, as long as the condition limits one or more major life activities (like sitting, standing, or sleeping).

Additionally, the disability determination is made without regard to any mitigating measures, such as medication, that eliminate symptoms. An impairment like cancer could also be considered a disability even if the person is in remission, as long as there is a possibility the cancer could return.

Reasonable Accommodations

The ADA requires that reasonable accommodations be provided, if necessary, for all people with disabilities, whether hidden or visible. These must be determined on a case-by-case basis and can include making facilities accessible for wheelchairs, adjusting the application and interview process, job restructuring, and equipment modification.

Unfortunately, in today’s workplace, if a disability is not observable, many people have difficulty understanding the need for accommodation, and some employees think that co-workers with reasonable accommodations are receiving favoritism. That’s why it’s critical to provide training about disability in the workplace to all of your employees, whether they have disabilities or not.

It’s also important to note that a request for accommodation doesn’t have to be in writing or include specific terms like “reasonable accommodation,” “Americans with Disabilities Act,” or even “disability,” in order to be a valid request under the law.

Tips for Handling Invisible Disabilities in the Workplace

Here are a few tips for employees and employers who may be working with a disabled colleague:

  • Discussions about disabilities in the workplace should focus on performance, but never assume that a disability in the workplace will cause substandard performance.
  • Maintain “people-first” language that describe the person vs. the disability and use preferred disability terminology (Example: Use the term “person with bipolar disorder” as opposed to stating “she is bipolar.”)
  • Maintain confidentiality regarding medical conditions and ensure that your supervisors understand HIPAA privacy requirements.
  • When a performance issue occurs, begin a dialogue with the employee right away and work to find solutions together.

If you do need to accommodate an employee, often this can be as simple as providing them with an ergonomic chair or adaptive phone equipment to assist with hearing. Sometimes it can require reassignment of a non-essential task, or even a minor scheduling adjustment to allow for regular medical appointments. If you’re having trouble finding an effective and reasonable solution for your employee’s invisible disability, the Job Accommodation Network can help.

Discussing Disabilities While Avoiding Discrimination

Unfortunately, disability discrimination charges are increasing at both federal and state levels. And even though HR personnel are continually educated on the ADA, not all employers are in tune with applicable laws and regulations.

As a best practice, any discussion about a worker’s disability should be brought up only with HR personnel and discussions should focus on potential and needed accommodations, not prognoses, therapies, or current concerns.

An employee may want to bring up a hidden disability after they’re hired once they see the daily requirements of the job first-hand and see a need for accommodations. However, the if the employee indicates, directly or indirectly, that the disability prevents them from doing an essential function of the job, they may not be entitled to a reasonable accommodation.

An employee may feel that talking more openly with co-workers about their invisible disability can be helpful. Some feel that it can lead to understanding and a willingness to work together to help them perform as productively as possible. What information the employee chooses to share is ultimately up to them, but it’s important that employers only address disability information specifically limited to the individual’s ability to perform the job.

Want More Help with Disabilities in the Workplace?

There’s no perfect model when it comes to building an effective, productive team. And managing discussions about disabilities with your team, whether visible or invisible, can be a challenge. But help with hiring and managing your team is here. Stay connected with Monster for the latest in free employer resources, from expert recruiting advice to the hiring and management strategies.

Legal Disclaimer: None of the information provided herein constitutes legal advice on behalf of Monster.